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October 15, 2021

The future is hybrid

grosser-somebody.JPGEvery longstanding annual event-turned-virtual these days has a certain tension.

"Next year, we'll be able to see each other in person!" says the host, beaming with hope. Excited nods in the Zoom windows and exclamation points in the chat.

Unnoticed, about a third of the attendees wince. They're the folks in Alaska, New Zealand, or Israel, who in normal times would struggle to attend this event in Miami, Washington DC, or London because of costs or logistics.

"We'll be able to hug!" the hosts say longingly.

Those of us who are otherwhere hear, "It was nice having you visit. Hope the rest of your life goes well."

When those hosts are reminded of this geographical disability, they immediately say how much they'd hate to lose the new international connections all these virtual events have fostered and the networks they have built. Of course they do. And they mean it.

"We're thinking about how to do a hybrid event," they say, still hopefully.

At one recent event, however, it was clear that hybrid won't be possible without considerable alterations to the event as it's historically been conducted - at a rural retreat, with wifi available only in the facility's main building. With concurrent sessions in probably six different rooms and only one with the basic capability to support remote participants, it's clear that there's a problem. No one wants to abandon the place they've used every year for decades. So: what then? Hybrid in just that one room? Push the facility whose selling point is its woodsy distance from modern life to upgrade its broadband connections? Bring a load of routers and repeaters and rig up a system for the weekend? Create clusters of attendees in different locations and do node-to-node Zoom calls? Send each remote participant a hugging pillow and a note saying, "Wish you were here"?

I am convinced that the future is hybrid events, if only because businesses sound so reluctant to resume paying for so much international travel, but the how is going to take a lot of thought, collaboration, and customization.

***

Recent events suggest that the technology companies' own employees are a bigger threat to business-as-usual than portending regulation and legislation. Facebook's had two major whistleblowers - Sophie Zhang and Frances Haugen in the last year, and basically everyone wants to fix the site's governance. But Facebook is not alone...

At Uber, a California court ruled in August that drivers are employees; a black British driver has filed a legal action complaining that Uber's driver identification face-matching algorithm is racist; and Kenyan drivers are suing over contract changes they say have cut their takehome pay to unsustainably low levels.

Meanwhile, at Google and Amazon, workers are demanding the companies pull out of contracts with the Israeli military. At Amazon India, a whistleblower has handed Reuters documents showing the company has exploited internal data to copy marketplace sellers' products and rig its search engine to display its own versions first. *And* Amazon's warehouse workers continue to consider unionizing - and some cities back them.

Unfortunately, the bigger threat of the legislation being proposed in the US, UK, New Zealand, Canada is *also* less to the big technology companies than to the rest of the Internet. For example, in reading the US legislation Mike Masnick finds intractable First Amendment problems. Last week I liked this idea of focusing on content social media companies' algorithms amplify, but Masnick persuasively argues it's not so simple, citing Daphne Koller, who thought more critically about the First Amendment problems that will arise in implementing that idea.

***

The governor of Missouri, Mike Parson, has accused Josh Renaud, a journalist with the St Louis Post-Dispatch, of hacking into a government website to view several teachers' social security numbers. From the governor's description, it sounds like Renaud hit either CTRL-U or hit F12, looked at the HTML code, saw startlingly personal data, and decided correctly that the security flaw was newsworthy. (He also responsibly didn't publish his article until he had notified the website administrators and they had fixed the issue.)

Parson disagrees about the legitimacy of all this, and has called for a criminal investigation into this incident of "hacking" (see also scraping). The ability to view the code that makes up a web page and tells the browser how to display it is a crucial building block of the web; when it was young and there were no instruction manuals, that was how you learned to make your own page by copying. A few years ago, the Guardian even posted technical job ads in its pages' HTML code, where the right applicants would see them. No password, purloined or otherwise, is required. The code is just sitting there in plain sight on a publicly accessible server. If it weren't, your web page would not display.

Twenty-five years ago, I believed that by now governments would be filled with 30-somethings who grew up with computers and the 2000-era exploding Internet and could restrain this sort of overreaction. I am very unhappy to be wrong about this. And it's only going to get worse: today's teens are growing up with tablets, phones, and closed apps, not the open web that was designed to encourage every person to roll their own.


Illustrations: Exhibit from Ben Grosser's "Software for Less, reimagining Facebook alerts, at the Arebyte Gallery until end October.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.